My Balkan love affair began back in 2010 with my first visit to Subotica (which I now know isn’t technically in the Balkans) and continued later that year with my first trip to Belgrade. It’s been a few years since I was last in Belgrade (I’ve been to many other cities since) and yet it’s still held its position as one of the top five cities in which I could live – were I to leave Budapest. Read more

My Balkan love affair began back in 2010 with my first trip to Subotica (Szabadka), just over the Hungarian-Serbian border. Since then, over many more trips, including a memorable first time in Belgrade, I’ve come to realise that Serbia and its people are one of a kind. Perhaps their history has taught them the value of living for today because without exception, every Serb I’ve met to date has an unparalleled appreciation for life.

While the rest of the world’s partiers spend New Year’s Day nursing a headache, feeling none too happy with life, and making all sorts of resolutions to behave over the course of the coming year, Serbians head out for Repriza (reprise). A do-over. A replay. And this I had to see.

Six of us convened in Subotica to acknowledge the start of the Serbian New Year last weekend and to celebrate two birthdays. The fact that I’m writing this a week later says it all; it’s taken me this long to recover. Six of us, from six nations, sat around a table in Jelen Salaš, a farmstead just 1 km from Palić lake. We brought to the table a mix of traditions from Serbia, Wales, Hungary, the USA, Romania, and Ireland. We switched between three languages and over the course of 12 hours, did our bit to store up good memories to get us through the week ahead. Thoughts of Trump as President were quickly decanted and sights were set on the now. [No coincidence, perhaps, that Jelen is Hungarian for the present.]

The platters of food – a meat lover’s fest – seemed endless. The musicians were in fine form. And everyone in the room was up for dancing. It was a riot. The wine and the šljivovica flowed, as did the conversation and the laughs. The waiters became part of the party. Cries of Mammia Mia! mixed with Oh, yeah! punctuated the night as the mood got better and better (and it had been great to begin with).

What struck me most was the hospitality shown, the size of the welcome, and the readiness to simply sit back and enjoy. Serbians, and their neighbours, have a respect for music and musicians that I’ve not seen anywhere else. I first encountered it in Belgrade and then later, in Sarajevo. It’s humbling.

For 12 hours it went on. And we hung in there till the end. It was a long train journey back to Budapest, but we lived to tell the tale. If memory serves me correctly, now that we’ve been broken in, as such, we plan on doing the real thing in Serbia next year. But even were I to start training now, I have serious doubts about my ability to do both NYE and Repriza. I haven’t an ounce of Balkan blood in me, and it shows.

One of the best things about living in Hungary is that it’s within easy access of fascinating destinations that make exploring the wider neighbourhood very appealing.  When I have a rare free weekend with no plans whatsoever, my feet start to itch. I could stay home and file. Or sort my socks. Or colour code my library. But if the borders beckon, I can’t resist. I don’t even try.

One of my favourite 36-hour getaways is to cross the Serbian border into Subotica (Szabadka to Hungarians). We caught the 8.05 train from Keleti Station on Saturday morning having booked into the cute little Hotel Gloria in the middle of the city. It’s within walking distance from the station and has its own modest spa that I usually have to myself: a Jacuzzi, steam room, and sauna with complimentary robes, slippers, and towels.  The staff there are marvellous: friendly, helpful, and very professional.

Exiting the train station, the view of the art nouveau Raichle House is stunning and but it’s just a taste of what’s to come. The Town Hall and the Synagogue are even more amazing, both built in the same style by Budapest architects Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab. They’re gobsmackingly gorgeous by day, but even more impressive by night. Sadly, the Zsolnay tile fountain is under wraps for winter. It, too, is magnificent.
IMG_3090 (600x800)Both the Franciscan Monastery and the Serbian Orthodox Church are worth some time. Both are beautiful.  In marked contrast, the Roman Catholic Cathedral has an alarming crack down the façade that conjures up all sorts of terrifying images as to what might happen one day.

IMG_3080 (800x600)IMG_3082 (800x600)We took the bus out to Palic Lake late afternoon, travelling back in time to days when women in long dresses and parasols strolled around this great expanse of now frozen water. We stopped off at a local pub to the amusement of the Hungarian-speaking locals who were fascinated by an Irish woman (badly) speaking their language in Serbia. And, as always, the warmth of Serbian hospitality melted my bones.

That night, having secured a reservation at Boss Caffe, we ate in style. Zang, their Chinese chef, has been doing great things for Chinese cuisine in the region for about seven years. Most of the menu is Italian, but I’d been dreaming of his eggplant chips and beef fillet with spicy zucchini since my last visit. The restaurant is at the high end of the local market but it’s relatively inexpensive, with service that is unmatched in my experience. Someone should poach Felix and have him set up a training school for wait staff in the rest of the world.

IMG_3084 (600x800)Serbians love their coffee and know how to serve it. The Hausbrandt Caffe does a great trade in imported Italian coffees served with good conversation and a smile and they saw a lot of us. Best Food, a Serbian fast food restaurant that would make a small fortune in franchise, enticed us back twice for their mouth-watering sandwiches and local meats cooked to order by … yes … friendly, efficient staff that negotiated the language barrier with both ease and interest.

We caught the 15.22 train back to Budapest on Sunday having had a lazy morning searching for the new monument to a favourite Hungarian poet, Kosztolányi Dezső. And as had happened on the way in, the train sat for 45 minutes about 100 m out of the station while passports were checked. Then, across the border in Hungary, some 10 km later, we sat for another 45 minutes while passports were checked again and customs did their bit. Disturbingly, this time, the hotel had given us a stamped form that we had to surrender on exit showing that we’d be registered as foreign visitors. A dark patch on an otherwise glorious 36 hours.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 February 2016

When you work as freelancer, weekends and national holidays mean nothing. There are no set summer holidays, no half-terms, no winter breaks. There are no set long weekends, three-day weeks, or working Saturdays. It’s all in the hands of the workflow gods. Some weeks are quieter than others. The rhythm that most lives have is something I have long-since forgotten. Were my life a musical score, it would be a cacophonous tune running parallel with a sublime melody. I’d not have it any other way.

August is my between-term vacation. Most of my clients are on holiday too, so the work slows to a trickle and my choices are two: I can stay in Budapest and bake, or get out of dodge and travel.

One of the many joys of living in this city is how accessible it is. Planes, trains, or automobiles ‒ whatever your chosen mode of transport, there is so much to do, so much to see, and all within easy reach.

I spent a lovely Saturday afternoon in the forest at Gödöllő. Monday took me to Siófok, to the Balaton. Thursday found me in Dublin. That’s the beauty of being able to work from wherever you can find an Internet connection.

IMG_7845 (800x600)

IMG_7847 (800x600)A day-trip to Szentendre on the Hév or by river is a well-known escape from the oppressive heat of the city. But what about Ráckeve? It’s a lovely little town on the banks of the Danube down on Csepel Island also accessible by Hév. Get there for the Saturday market and enjoy a potter around, making sure to visit the incredibly gorgeous fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist. There’s a wonderful story about the wooden bridge that was built across the river, a story worth repeating:

‘You have got a nice occupation’ said the little child to the old bridge builder. ‘It might be difficult to build bridges, but if someone learnt it, it is easy’ said the old bridge builder. ‘It is easy to build a bridge of concrete and steel. Building other bridges is more difficult…’ ‘What other bridges?’ asked the little child. ‘Building bridges from one person to another, from darkness to light, from sadness to joy. I would like to build bridges to the happy future.’ The little child said: ‘It’s a special thing you do.’

IMG_3289 (600x800)Further afield, heading towards Austria by car to another bridge, is an amazing open air sculpture exhibition that lines the narrow road leading to the Bridge at Andau, the escape route taken by thousands fleeing Hungary in 1956. It is a chilling (and timely) reminder about the lengths people will go to, to make a better life for them and theirs.  The artwork is what remains of a 1996 exhibition along what’s known as the Road to Freedom and originally featured 90 pieces of work entitled The Road of Woes. Just a few miles outside the village of Andau along the Austrian/Hungarian border, it’s well worth the drive.

In the opposite direction, my favourite train destination is an Art Nouveau Serbian town known to Hungarians as Szabadka and to Serbs as Subotica. The birthplace of Hungarian writer and poet Kosztolányi Deszo, it’s not far from Palić Lake, home to the European Film Festival and the best apple ice-cream you will ever taste. This gem of a place has lured me back time and time again. In fact, I think I’m overdue a trip, where dinner at the delectable Boss restaurant will be my reward at the end of the three-hour train journey. That’s me sorted.

Whatever you do this summer, enjoy yourself. And take the time to make some memories. We know not what the future has in store.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 July 2015

 

I’ve been giving a lot of thought this week to the transiency of life. I’ve been paying more attention than usual to what I do each day. And I’ve even expanded my limited Hungarian vocabulary to include the phrase arany életem van (my life is golden).

Obrenovac, 40 kilometers west of Belgrade

Obrenovac, 40 kilometers west of Belgrade          (c) www.balkaneu.com

As I write, I’m in Belgrade. The floods that are ravaging towns on the banks of the River Sava in Serbia have killed and maimed, and made thousands homeless. Sure, someone said that heavy rains were expected but no one thought for a minute that the rains would be heavy enough to knock their houses and change their lives forever. The average rainfall for five months fell in just two days. From one day to the next, people have gone from having everything to having nothing. They’ve salvaged what they could and are now taking refuge in centres in Belgrade, dependent totally on the good will of others.

(c) www.balkaneu.com

(c) www.balkaneu.com

An appeal on Friday by the Prime Minister for people to turn out and help fill sandbags in an attempt to hold the banks saw more than 12 000 people show up. The streets of the city ring out with music played by groups of young musicians, all collecting money to help those displaced by the deluge. Everyone is talking about what has happened and how they can help. There is a palpable awareness that this, too, could have happened to them. The nation is responding en masse and it’s gratifying to see. And yet the common refrain I hear gives voice to the hope that this solidarity, this willingness to engage, to help, will continue long after the waters subside.

(c) reuters.com

(c) reuters.com

For me it has underscored the transiency of life – and the need to appreciate what I have because tomorrow, who knows; it might all be taken from me. Arany életem van most (my life is golden now).

Earlier in the week, I finally watched Adrian Brody’s The Pianist – a harrowing tale of Jews in Warsaw during the Second World War. I watched how they foraged for food salvaging every morsel. And then I noticed how I threw away the top of my tomato. I saw how I didn’t fully empty my tub of hummus before casting it aside. The peel of my avocado still had a lot of flesh on it. Back in 1944, these remnants would have made a feast for someone. Today, in 2014, the same applies.

I buy vegetables with every intention of cooking them and then I get invited to dinner. I get fed but the vegetables go to waste. I buy meats and cheeses that I intend eating but never quite get around to. I buy spices and herbs required by a recipe for a dish I only make once – and then they expire. A semi-annual clear-out of my kitchen presses is depressing as I throw out jar after jar of condiments have have passed their use-by date. And until this week, I did all of this without thought.

Neither world hunger nor natural disasters directly impinge on my life. I can sympathise with those affected but I can’t pretend for a minute to know what either are really like. I can send money to the Red Cross to help the flood victims. I can send money to aid agencies to help those who are starving. And while money helps – as prayers do – there are lessons to be learned, too. Better appreciate what I have. Eliminate wanton waste. Share willingly.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 May 2014

‘It’s started. They’re flowering. Catch the next train to Subotica and someone will meet you at the station.’ I’d been waiting for this particular phone call for twelve months and when it came, I was ready. I was going to see something miraculous – the tiszavirág (or as it’s known in Serbia, tiski cvet).

Every year, for a day or two in June, a particular species of mayfly hatches on the Tisza River in what is known as tiszavirág (the Tisza blooming). The species, Polingenia longicauda, spends three years underwater, coming to the surface to frenetically hatch and mate for about two hours before dying. Its short life is dedicated totally to reproduction. Watching these flies mate in mid-air, the male’s long legs wrapped around the female, is quite something. There is no time for niceties. It’s a case of now or never with gangs of males chasing down a lone female. Some of the more eager males lie in wait on top of the female who has yet to shed her skin.

Clouds of them hover above the water, more cover the trunks of the riverbank trees, others gather on the drift wood – each trying to shed its cocoon and get down to the business of mating. So frantic are they in their race against time that I want to reach out and help the process. But I remember what I’d learned in Kruger, South Africa – do not interfere with nature. Instead, I stand, riveted, watching the brightly coloured insects gradually emerge from a diaphonous white coocon. One lands on my knee and there, oblivious to me and to the feel of cotton, he  goes about  his business. I am mesmerized and for the first time in my life, I have some small insight into what it might be like for a father to watch the birth of his child.

A flight of fancy

We take a skiff up the river and seem to fly with them – hundreds and thousands of them. Fishermen are out with their nets; this particular fly is liked by all species of fish, so it makes good bait. Given that the flies live just for two hours above water, it seems a little heartless to cut their short life even shorter and I feel some irrational degree of resentment at this display of what I perceive as human insensitivity. Surely the fishermen could wait a little. Photographers with their zoom lenses get up close and personal and I briefly wonder whether this counts as voyeurism. Waiting three years to mate and then having it all immortalised on film to be screened around the world as soon as the images are uploaded to the Internet? A little too close to the human condition for comfort. It’s hot. I know I am getting a little ridiculous, a little too fanciful, so I sit for a while on some driftwood and reflect on what exactly is bothering me.

Which life?

To spend three years underwater and then to surface for just two hours begs the question: which part consistutes life? Is what goes on underwater the mayfly’s version of living, and the ritual that goes on above water, its version of dying? The female mayfly lays her eggs on the surface of the water. After about 45 days, the eggs drift to the bottom of the river and hatch into larvae. The larvae then dig tunnels into the riverbed and stay put for three years after which they surface. The females shed once; the males twice: they first have a very brief ‘teenage’ stage and then in a matter of minutes, turn into adults. While the entire mating period lasts for about two days, each mayfly lives for about two hours. To see the process of death and regeneration in action simultaneously, is quite the experience. Like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II, I wonder if the the tiszavirág are mentally prepared to die?

Changing times

Locals recall times 50 years ago when you couldn’t see the other side of the Tisza for the 2-meter-high wall of insects swarming over the water. Sadly, this is no longer the case. I catch the action on Sunday evening; the previous evening, there had been a lot more to see. Like every other miracle in this world of ours, this one, too, seems to be waning. Yes, there are people watching but nothing like the crowds that I’d expected. I wonder briefly whether we have we lost our ability to marvel at what is natural? Has technology replaced nature as our chief source of wonder? Are we now immune to the simplest pleasures in life, spoiled as we are with great discoveries and scientific advancement?

The simple mayfly could teach us a lot about life and how fragile, fleeting, and fascinating it really is.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 June 2012

… now I’m an upscale, trendy restaurant with a cocktail bar, with a fashion lounge and spa/salon within spitting distance of Belgrade’s Silicon Valley (not to be confused with California’s Silicon Valley – this part of town got its name from the amount of silicon walking around on two legs). I’m the Supermarket Concept Store. I wrote a while back about Hungarians and their ability to make stuff from nothing – Serbians have taken that one step further. This is one, simply amazing place. Once a regular discount market, it now screams a litany of adjectives like ‘arty’ ‘trendy’, ‘on fashion’, ‘with it’. It has it all. A wide open space that is divided without walls or ropes into clearly defined areas that somehow all work together.

And the food…agh, the food, the food, the food. The salads include anything from rocket salad with smoked beef and truffle oil to stir-fried tiger prawns in spicy caramel with citrus bavaroise (and impressive as that sounds in English, try getting your tongue around the local rendition: gambori pripremljeni u voku sa pikantnim karamelomi i bavarskim kremom od citrusa!). For soups, what about fresh spinach and nettle soup with sour cream and lemon or thai chicken with coconut, lemon grass and cashew nuts. Main courses include everything from chicken, pork or beef to salmon, squid,  or tuna.I made the mistake of thinking that anything off Fuze (fusion bites) menu would be snack size  – not so. As for the sushi… and the desserts!

Then there’s the drinks. It nevers ceases to amaze me how so many places simplay cannot pull off a good cosmopolitan. At most, recently, I’ve been giving 5/10 or 6/10 but Višnjićeva 10 gets an 8.5/10. Not bad at all by my reckoning. But their Aperol spritz is off the charts – just how it should be.

You can have a ‘super start’ to your day from 9-1pm, a jazz brunch on Sundays from 1-5pm and happy hour every Friday from 5-7pm.

Wandering through the displays on my way back from the loo I chanced upon the find of the century. A little green frog in a jar. You pour some water on him and he turns into a little prince. And then he grows.  What’s not to like about Belgrade eh?

Cocktail hour in Belgrade. I’m chatting to a rather charming and very gallant gentleman who definitely has noble blood running through his veins. He tells me that he’s heard I have a peculiar fascination with cemeteries and that my fascination fascinates him. He then asks the question I have never been able to answer. Why?

‘Is it the architecture?’ he asks. I think for a while. And agree. Partly. The tombstones definitely tell a story. But strangely, what sits on top of a grave tells more about what those left behind think of the person that of what the person themselves might have had to say.

‘Perhaps it’s the history,’  he suggests. I think some more. And agree. Partly. Seeing someone’s photo, encased behind glass on their headstone, is a little strange. When the pictures are period photos, obviously not taken shortly before their death, it’s even stranger. Do people choose the photo they want to used to remind others of who they were? I know that no matter how old I get, I will always be 37 in my head and even in my heart. My body may age and the lines across my face may tell the stories of who I am, but in myself, I’ll always be 37. Perhaps I should look back for a photo of me taken then and slip that into the envelope that’s to be opened upon my death.

‘Or maybe it’s the sacredness?’ I think a while and then nod. I agree. Partly. Cemeteries for me are solemn places, bathed in shadows and quiet murmurings. (I’ve read Christopher Moore’s The stupidest angel, so I know better than to visit them at night, when those quiet murmurings become a little more.) And yes, if I had to pick just one reason for my obsession, perhaps this comes closest to describing it. It might well be that I’m on some sort of shopping trip, treating these cemeteries as catalogues, as I subconsciously plan a monument to my own life. I seem to vascillate between burial and cremation. A bit of both doesn’t make much sense – it needs to be either/or. And if it’s cremation …mmm…perhaps that explains my relentless urge to travel, to find that spot where my ashes should be scattered.

Then again, do I really need a reason? Do I have to be able to explain it or is it simply enough to go with the attraction and pay my respects to all those who  have gone before be, those who have made my world what it is today.
[Photos taken in Zemun cemetery, Serbia.]

I know my history – or at least after three plus years of living in Budapest, I know more history than I used to know. Why, then, is it that I am constantly surprised to visit places outside Hungary and hear Hungarian, see monuments built by Hungarians, and see Hungarian names on tombstones? I’ve done the math. I’ve seen the maps. I know the score. And still it surprises me.

This latest one was in Zemun, which pre-1938, was a town outside Belgrade. Many residents still consider it a separate entity, but on paper, it’s now one of the 17 municipalities that make up the Serbian capital.

Dating back to the neolithic period, Zemun has quite a pedigree. The celts set up shop there in the 3rd century BC and the Romans came to call in the 1st century BC. In the 12th century, it was conquered by Hungary, and as was done in those days, it was given as a personal possession to Đurađ Branković, once the richest monarch in Europe. [Am already thinking about where I’d like for my birthday!]

As the southern-most town within Hungary’s empire (as it was back then), Zemun was favoured with one of the many monuments built to commemorate 1000 years of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Built in 1896, it’s a little worse for wear and the fortress on which it was built has all but disappeared. Postitioned on top of Gardos hill, it’s a great place to if you’re in search of a view. Standing up on the balcony, I could almost feel the presence of the ghost of the despot himself, as he surveyed all he used to be lord of.

The old town itself is hilly and cobblestoned, with narrow streets and small slate-roofed houses, so very different from the architecture in Belgrade. Looking down from above, it’s as if someone threw a bunch of buildings up in the air and let them settle where they landed. There are nearly as many churches as there are cafés and the place definitely has an other-world feel to it. It’s no wonder the locals still consider themselves set apart. If you’re in Belgrade, and fancy something different, it’s worth taking the time and dropping by for lunch.

Maybe one of these days, the world will stand still long enough for my geography to catch up.

In 2008, Ken Loach won the prestigious European Film Festival award. If you are a fan, it might also have registered with you that the festival takes place, each year, in  Palić, a little village about 8km outside Subotica in Serbia. If you’re not a fan, and you’re not Serbian, then you’re excused from never having heard of the place. And if you ever find yourself in Subotica and want to venture forth, then take the No. 6 bus … but remember that in this part of the world, you enter at the back of the bus and pay the man sitting in the booth. The driver… drives. Quite the division of labour. If you do as we did, be prepared to be assaulted by a passenger chorus which is both unintelligble and a little intimidating.

Owl Castle

The village sits on the edge of Palić lake and is home to about 8000 people, most of them ethnic Hungarians. It has about 450 guesthouses/villas, so it’s a fair guess what most of them do for a living. The Hungarian style of Art Nouveau is well represented and is probably why the village is said to have a Disney feel to it. It would take very little imagination to see Rapunzel dropping her hair down the side of Owl Castle, or to envisage a 1920s Gatsby-style cocktail party in the grounds of the Grand Terrace. It really is rather pretty and with 17km of bike paths, it’s a nice place to spend an afternoon. If you’re that way inclined, that is. I’m not. So I settled for wandering the paths, testing the surprisingly good, neon green, apple ice-cream, and reading the notices. Mind you, if I had kids, I’d consider it for a holiday – pedal boats and beaches, bikes and bikebuggies, and the zoo just around the corner. And did I mention the ice-cream?

The Grand Terrace

I learned a lot by reading the notices. For instance, I didn’t know that in 1956, the village was home to a refugee camp for Hungarians fleeing from Hungary. Makes sense, really; the area was once inside the Hungarian borders. Even more interesting though is what I found when I went to find out more! I never knew that 541 Hungarians took refuge in Ireland in 1956, in a camp at Knocknalisheen in Limerick. And while I never cease to marvel how much I don’t know, at times I really wonder where I’ve been most of my life.

All roads into the ‘resort’ fan out from the Water Tower and standing with your back to the lake, if you take the road on the far right, you’ll pass the Hungarian Embassy – or at least that’s what I think it is. But then I could have sworn I saw one in Subotica, too. Perhaps this is the summer residence.

The local post office

All along that row stand what must have been Communist Party villas in the early 1900s. A large number are now small hotels – each one beautifully maintained. All rather splendid and sedate. Even the local post office is something to write home about – and following my own particular word association there, Palić, like Subotica, is devoid of postcards. Neither town appears to attract foreigners, as we were told when we went to see the excellent ‘Love it or Leave it‘ exhibition of contemporary art from the region, and when we had a guided tour of the American Corner.

Although the sun was beating down and messing with my photographs (I really must get that thingy that shades the lense), the haziness did lend an ‘other worldy’ feel to the place.

It was Friday – and it was quiet. I can only image what it’s like at the weekends. There were a couple of villas for sale and the thought did cross my mind that I still have that retreat B&B on my bucket list. I have no difficulty at all imagining myself coming down this stairs to breakfast every morning. And it’s when inside starts to affect the outside that things go well with the world. At least, that’s what the skinny me told the huszi me, as I held up a size XL and wondered what sort of stick insect would fit into a Serbian XS. I guess I’m just not prepared to give up the apple ice-cream.